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Schools Blog

Just what do our children see?

Two beautiful children, a picture of innocence and youth, positively beam at me from the side of a bus. ‘Please don’t label me,’ they implore me. ‘Let me grow up and decide for myself.’ And how could anyone refuse such a reasonable request from such lovely kids?

But in the week that saw the British Humanist Association launch their newest bus campaign, I was fascinated to read of a report from the British Educational Research Association. ‘Why teachers should listen to children who believe they see angels’ ran the headline, followed by statistics that suggest not only that children believe in a spiritual realm, but that they’re very much in tune with it.

For example, 94 children interviewed recalled dreams with a ‘religious connection’, of which a third never mentioned it to a significant adult. Why? Fear of being misunderstood or mocked. Founded? Probably. The leading research fellow, Dr Kate Adams of Bishop Grosseteste University College, Lincoln, cited the headline example of a 7-year-old who believes she sees an angel by her bed every night. The one time she confided this to her mother she was told it was just her imagination. Unsurprisingly, she kept her mouth shut in future.

What’s interesting is Dr Adams’ conclusion that, ultimately, her research shows how little adults understand children – and sadly, just how easy it is for well-meaning adults armed with their scissors of grown-up rationality to cut lines of communication on ‘matters of personal importance’ with one fell snip. This seems to come across loud and clear on the bus slogan. The undeniable subtext of the BHA’s campaign is that beliefs and values are an exclusively adult domain. Children must ‘grow up’ before they can have any kind of reasonable opinion on these kinds of things. Yet the research shows that children are alive to the mysteries of the universe, the unfathomable and not-quite-knowable, in a way that in fact adults aren’t. What’s more, they already have beliefs, experiences and theories on the world around them – but adults aren’t especially interested in listening to them.

It’s my belief as a Christian that we are all spiritual beings and that children have a special dispensation which gives them incredible insight into these kinds of things. There’s a scene in the 1991 film ‘Hook’ where the now grown-up Peter Pan, played by Robin Williams, returns to Neverland. He sits down to eat a meal with the Lost Boys who happily tuck into their ‘food’, though the plates are apparently empty. Hungry, Peter finds this beyond a joke. Now an adult, he has no capacity to see what’s before him. Only when a verbal showdown with Rufio, the new leader of the Lost Boys, takes him away from adulthood and back into the mind of a 12-year-old is he suddenly able to see the amazing banquet in plain sight.

Jesus taught that the Kingdom of Heaven belonged to those who are like children. In my experience, children don’t seem to have an issue with God. He’s self-evident. Children like to pray. Children will prophesy given half a chance. And this has little to do with parental influence. I’ve heard children from non-religious backgrounds tell me about how God speaks to them. On one occasion when I asked what He said, a young friend of mine replied, ‘Oh, he tells me that I shouldn’t have done [something wrong].’
‘And what then?’
‘Well, then I say that I’m sorry. And He says, ‘That’s OK – don’t do it again.’

Where does the school fit in? Education legislation charges schools with the task of nurturing their students’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. This means giving them the space to voice their experiences and explore their ideas in a way that is safe and respectful, rather than dismissive or keen to teach them the error of their thinking. After all, when it comes to the mysteries of the universe, who’s to say who’s got it right? As teachers and schools workers, we need to create the space to help our children and young people do this as part of our duty of care towards them. When we fail to do so, we are failing our children who are desperate to talk about these matters and make some sense of them.

Maybe part of the problem is our adulthood. As we grow up we are distracted, overwhelmed by different voices. Maybe the key to helping to nurture our children begins with a journey of our own: back to our childhood, back into the unknown.

So don’t label yourself. Make yourself like a little child and decide for yourself.

Submitted by Rachel Noyce at 9:36am, 24th November 2009